Imagine for a moment that a small nation suddenly produces a superb crop of talented football players. Together these players with skillful coaching develop a new style of highly imaginative play and transform the game. Over the next four years they go on an unprecedented run, defeating one nation after another with seemingly effortless play. During this time they beat one of the world’s top national teams in the most devastating fashion. All other opponents are defeated just as decisively. In the process this team and several of its star players become national icons, revered for decades afterward. The team represents a nation with a population of nine and a half million, a mid-size country that suddenly produces a uber-talented team that goes from good to one of the all-time greats despite the fact that much of this nation’s infrastructure was badly damaged less than a decade earlier in a world war. This incredible team comes from a nation that has the same population as Azerbaijan, Jordan, Belarus or Hungary. Such a storyline seems far-fetched, beyond the wildest imagination, but such a team once existed and if it could happen once. then it could certainly happen again. This team has become known as the “Magical Magyars” of Hungary that ruled world football in the early 1950’s. They accomplished all of the above and in the process helped bring about the modern game. Of all their accomplishments the most memorable were defining victories over England, a footballing superpower they laid low, not once, but twice.
The Birth of Modern Football – Match of The Century
On November 25, 1953 England and Hungary faced off in what was called “The Match of the Century” before a crowd of 105,000 on a foggy afternoon at Wembley Stadium in London. The match was highly anticipated since both the English and Hungarian teams were among the world’s best. The English were prohibitive favorites. They had never lost a home match to a foreign team from outside the British Isles. As inventors of the game, it was believed the English played the best, most pure brand of football. They had history on their side, but history meant little to the team they were to face.
The Hungarians were considered a major threat to end English home field dominance. Most recently they had defeated the powerful Italian national team in Rome 3-0. They played a transformative style of football that was an early version of the modern game. Ironically they had learned much of their style of play from a former English professional player and coach by the name of Jimmy Hogan. Hogan ended up teaching and coaching in Hungary by a twist of historical fate after being interned during World War One in Austria after World War I started. He emphasized ball control, short passes and skillful individual play in what became known as the Danubian School of Football.. His tutelage was a foundation for the Magyars magical re-imagining of the game.
Total Football – Total Dominance
Twenty years prior to the Dutch pioneering Total Football, in which any player on the field can take over the position of another player, the Magyars did the same thing with one touch passing, ball control and each player looking to go on the attack at every opportunity. This style offered infinite offensive possibilities as positional interchange meant that any player was free to press the attack. The Hungarians developed an early form of these tactics to devastating effect. When done with precision it destroyed the opponent’s defense. They also held several other advantages over the opposition. The Hungarians focused on physical fitness and were able to regularly practice together. The national team players were all on the Honved club sponsored by the military. They came into the match against England brimming with confidence, in the midst of a historic four year undefeated run. This included a dominant performance in the 1952 Olympics. On their way to winning the gold medal they outscored the competition by an aggregate of 20 – 3. By the time they arrived at the rickety Empire Stadium at Wembley, the Hungarians had not lost a game since the spring of 1950. The skies may have been gloomy over London that grey November day, but as the match got underway it became apparent that the Hungarians were intent on lighting up the English defense.
A mere 45 seconds into the game a series of one touch passes ended with the Hungarian midfielder, Nandor Hidegkuti nailing a perfect shot from the penalty line to give the visitors the lead. The English leveled with a goal at the 15th minute. Then the Hungarians put on an exhibition of offensive football rarely seen since that day, scoring five consecutive goals over the next 40 minutes. They displayed complete control with the ball by using skillful passes to exploit openings in the confused English defense. Time and again the Hungarians were able to get clean shots on goal. Their explosive offense was unstoppable with Hidegkuti leading the way with a hat trick of goals. When the final whistle blew, the score was Hungary 6 England 3, but anyone who saw the game knew it had not been nearly that close. Some observers later said that the Hungarians could have easily scored at least ten goals. For every English shot on goal, the Hungarians had seven. Rarely has one world class team routed another so badly. The home crowd was stunned into silence. After 90 minutes it was obvious that English professional football was stuck in the past. The modern game had arrived that day on the magical feet of the Magyars. English football looked primitive by comparison.
Widening The Gap – Hungary Ascendant
The Match of the Century had turned out to be a drubbing for the ages. England would get their chance at revenge, but in the meantime they had a lot of catching up to do. Rather than closing the gap, they would soon discover that the gap was actually widening. More than an ocean or a continent separated English and Hungarian football, the difference was one of strategy, skill level and imagination. The English may have invented the game, but the Hungarians had perfected it. The two teams would meet again the next year in Budapest and this time the result would be just as stunning in its own way.